Saturday, June 11, 2011

Replacing Nuclear Power:

And Other Fantasies

Individuals who are anti-nuclear or just plain afraid of nuclear have long harbored the illusion that existing nuclear power is easy to replace. "Just build more solar arrays," I have heard, or "Just put up more windmills." Few are aware of how long it takes to build any new capacity in substantial quantities.

While individuals can, perhaps, be forgiven for not being able to "do the math" and figure out what is really involved in substituting for a substantial fraction of a nation's electricity supply, it is more troubling when countries start subscribing to the same myths, as several countries have done in the last couple of weeks.

Not surprisingly, given its history, Germany has led the way. "We'll just build more renewable energy sources and improve the grid," the government has said. Switzerland soon followed. Grudgingly, the governments are acknowledging that their move in this direction means that they will burn more fossil fuels, at least in the near future.

Actually, it will probably mean that they will build more fossil fuels for quite some time, as they are acknowledging that the shutdown of nuclear plants will require new fossil fuel capacity. It is hard to see them building new fossil-fueled power plants for just a few years of operation. Therefore, the first casualty of the German and Swiss decision is the effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

What Germany and Switzerland are not acknowledging is that they will actually not cut their effective use of nuclear power by very much. One advantage of the interconnected European grid is that they can draw on power produced by their neighbors. This allows them to self-righteously proclaim that they are leading the world to a newer, greener nirvana, while they conveniently block out the fact that their neighbors produce much of the electricity by means of nuclear power plants.

As an aside, I should say that I'm not completely sure that France and other neighbor countries can make up for the loss of this much nuclear power without having some negative effects for their own country. So, the second casualty of the German and Swiss decision may be some larger geopolitical consequences.

In any event, Japan doesn't have the luxury of drawing electricity from neighboring countries. Being an island, it is not interconnected to other sources of supply, nuclear or non-nuclear. Therefore, despite the magnitude of the accident, it is surprising and troubling to hear some people in Japan speculate that they may not restart reactors as they shut down for routine maintenance, and that all of Japan's reactors could be closed a year from now. While this may be an extreme view, even the less extreme views seem to be disconnected with reality.

It is true that there is a lot of local opposition to nuclear power at the moment, and the concern of the public is understandable. However, Japan is already suffering power shortages with the plants that are currently shut down. And it isn't even the height of summer there yet.

Even before the accident, Japan had a tight power supply by Western standards. Of course, I know that Americans use more energy than other industrialized nations, and that other countries maintain a standard of living similar to ours with a lower per capita energy expenditure. Still, having lived in both Japan and France, I can say from personal experience that not only are homes smaller in Japan than elsewhere, but the supply of electricity per household is also smaller.

Therefore, I am disappointed to see Japan appearing to retreat from reality. Germany and Switzerland may be able to survive with their heads in the sand, while others feed their thirst for electricity, but Japan has no such options. So a consequence of the directions Japan is beginning to take may have severe consequences on the Japanese economy.

In short, the rosy optimism countries seem to have that they will "just" replace nuclear power with other sources of electricity is likely to have some serious negative consequences, both within their own borders and around the world.



  1. In Vermont, I am somewhat distressed at how the NIMBY mentality which is opposed to every type of power plant does not concern itself with line losses. "We'll just get power from the grid." And we will lose 20% of the power produced as it is shipped from New Hampshire or Canada to Vermont. That power will heat up transmission lines and provide a bit of static on radio waves. It will be totally wasted.

    These same people feel very non-wasteful because they have changed out their light bulbs for CFLs.

  2. As you tally up the costs of shutting down nuclear plants in terms of money and damage to the environment, don't forget to to ask yourself who is benefitting from the illogical decisions. I do not believe that people act in opposition to their own self interest ,unless they have been skillfully convinced that they are not hurting themselves. Generally speaking, that convincing comes from people who have something to gain financially or otherwise from encouraging the poor choices.

    I have often said that petroleum salesmen might have learned some of their skills by copying Columbian drug lords or neighborhood pushers.

    That increased volume of fossil fuel that Germany will burn to replace the output of shutdown nuclear facilities represents increased sales and revenue for entities with strong motives for encouraging the nuclear shutdown to last as long as possible.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights